A story is told that long ago there was a little village, built among the ruins of an ancient Roman city called Cherchell, near a mountain named Mount Chenoua, and at the foot of this mountain there was a well, and it was known as “the Mysterious Well”.
The story goes that, every time there was a full moon, a strange woman would emerge from this well and begin crying and howling all through the night, until the dawn.
They say too that the water from the well was plentiful and flowed freely down to the village, but no man ever drank it because if he did his skin would turn blue and he would find himself covered in spines which would grow longer and longer every day, until he could no longer move the tiniest bit, or eat or
drink, until he perished of hunger and thirst. Even the animals used to refuse to drink from this water as if they, too, knew …
One year, a terrible drought struck the village. All the wells dried up. The land became parched and cracked. The cattle became weak and sick. The trees turned yellow and lost their fruit. Only this well flowed freely, its water descending all the way to the village. The villagers were puzzled and asked themselves what was going on. One day they had a meeting to try to solve the problem. They ended up deciding that the only solution was for someone to approach the well at the time of the full moon and ask the strange woman who emerged from it.
But what was needed for this mission was a brave, courageous man with a valiant heart. Nobody volunteered at first. But a handsome young man with
a frail body, named Salman, put himself forward to go. He was an orphan and said he had nothing to lose.
“I have to go because somebody has to decide. We are all in danger of dying if we don’t find an answer. I know it is dangerous to go to this haunted well, but it has to be done. In any case, if something bad happens to me, nobody will be affected because I have no mother or father.”
The villagers were relieved and thanked Salman for his bravery. And so, one night when the moon was full, the brave young man set off for the haunted well. The closer he came to it, the heavier his legs became, and the slower he walked. But eventually he arrived and sat down next to the well, waiting for hours for the woman to appear. Without thinking, in order to stop sleep from getting the better of him, he began to hum, then sing softly to himself while trailing his hand in the refreshing, icy water of the well:
“Tell me, Well, what is the secret of your water that continues to flow while our wells, our land, our crops and trees have all dried up, to the point where we no longer have anything to drink or eat …?”
Suddenly, he saw gold, pearls, silver and emeralds come gushing out of the well…terrified, he cried:
“This isn’t what I want; I just want water, only water …!”
At that moment, an extremely beautiful woman, exuding a wonderful scent of flowers, elegantly dressed in a colourful robe, emerged from the well and said to him:
“Welcome, Salman, take as much as you want of this treasure, do not be afraid.”
Salman, still terrified, replied:
“No, no, I do not want gold, I just want water. Our village is dying. Our cattle, our land, our wells… everything is dying, I just want you to help us with water until nature is kind to us once again.”
“Take whatever you want,”
the strange woman said to him,
“no one can see you. Take everything and leave this wretched village. Go to the big city and buy yourself houses and shops; you could have slaves, servants … Forget about this village and its lack of water!”
Salman, said to her, sadly:
“I am not like that, dear lady, I cannot betray my
village, I love the villagers and I need to live with them.”
“You are very good, Salman; you are not like other men. Very well then, you may take all you want. Help yourselves to my water, and don’t worry, nothing bad will happen to you.”
“You can take all the water you need for three months, then come back to me and we will see what to do next.”
Salman was very happy about this. He thanked the guardian of the well from the bottom of his heart and ran off to the village to announce the good news to the villagers. When he arrived there, he sat down and told them all about what had taken place between himself and the strange woman. The villagers were surprised at first, then happy, and they celebrated the good news by organising a big party in his honour. The river resumed its course and the water flowed freely.
To reassure themselves, they asked Salman to take the first drink from it, and he did so. Nothing happened to him.
In this same village, there lived an old man named Hatek. He was a rude, ugly, mean person. He always smelled horrible … Nobody liked him. When he heard Salman telling his story about his encounter with the guardian of the well, a wicked idea came into in his mind. He decided, one night when the moon was full, to go to the well, taking with him some big sacks, which he placed on his donkey’s back. Once he arrived there, he sat down and began to sing softly, trying to imitate Salman. Suddenly, the water that was gushing from the well turned into gold, pearls and emeralds. The strange woman appeared and asked him:
“So, Hatek, do you want to take this treasure for yourself?”
Teeth chattering, he replied that he did.
“Do you know that if you take it, the drinking water will disappear and will be replaced by poisoned water that will kill everyone in the village?”
The despicable man then replied:
“I don’t care. I just want to take the treasure.”
Angrily, the guardian of the well ordered him to help himself and then get out of her sight immediately. Which he did, without making her ask again. He filled his sacks to the brim and ran off, crazy with joy at the idea of being rich.
That very night, the villagers heard horrible screams, the like of which they had never heard before, but they were unable to tell where they were
It was only at sunrise that they discovered the terrible truth: the water of the river that flowed from the well had once again become poisonous and many of the animals that had drunk from it were lying on the ground dead and had turned a strange green colour.
As for Hatek, he went on his way without troubling himself about the plight of the villagers, heading for the big city, thinking about what he was going to do there and how he was going to spend all that money. Suddenly, he began to feel ill; his feet were hurting him. He told himself it must be because of how far he had walked. But when he lifted up his djellaba, the long robe worn by men in those parts, he discovered that his feet had turned blue and all over his body spines were beginning to grow out through his skin.
He trembled with fear and rolled up his sleeves. He jumped in shock. His hands and arms had also turned blue. He began to cry and scream. He said to anyone who would listen that he was willing to give a sack of gold and silver to anyone who could cure him of this evil. He took shelter in a tent and saw a whole stream of doctors and quacks; they all examined him, gave him remedies and promised to cure him immediately. But when he opened his sacks to pay them, what a shock he received! The sacks were full of sand and rocks. Like a madman, he began screaming and hitting his own head. Then he was beaten up badly by the doctors and quacks who were demanding he pay them what they were owed. After that, he was sent away from the city and returned, painfully, to his village.
He was in a piteous state, and it was distressing to witness. Even though they had heard the whole story, the villagers felt sorry for him. His spines grew so long that no one could come close to him or feed him. He ended up dying.
One day, the situation in the village became even worse and the villagers decided to leave the area because life there was becoming impossible.
Salman asked them to wait just a little longer, to give him time to go to see the guardian of the well, hoping she might provide a solution. One night, when the moon was full, he headed for the well then began singing softly until the woman appeared. She yelled at him to go back to where he had come from before she killed him. She shouted, in a desperate voice:
“I lost my trust in human beings a very long time ago; you are the only one who has been able to convince me a little of your sincerity, but I refuse to listen to you now because you are all the same.”
“Whatever can have happened for you to hate mankind so much?”
asked Salman, intrigued
“You should know that, once upon a time, I was the daughter of the King of the Genies. I had the misfortune to fall in love with a man who seemed handsome, good and tender. But my father refused to let me marry him. He said that if he wanted to marry me it was only because he knew that after my death my body would be transformed into nuggets of gold and silver. My father was afraid that, once we were married, the man would kill me to inherit my fortune. I did not believe him, and I defied him. Eventually, he gave way and we got married at last. We lived happily together for a while. One day, I told him I was expecting a baby. He shouted and danced with joy. He led me to the well, promising me a wonderful surprise. He stabbed me with a knife which pierced my back. I died, as did my son who had not yet seen the light of day. My body turned into gold and silver, which the man quickly gathered up, then fled. All that was left was my soul and that of my baby. He threw my clothes and some locks of my hair to the bottom of this well.”
As she told her story, tears ran down Salman’s cheeks. He begged her to kill him in place of that heartless man.
“I did not think such a despicable being could exist on this earth Now I understand your tears and your wailing. You have every reason to act this way. You may kill me if that might assuage your suffering. I am ready to pay the price so the people of my village and their children can live safely.”
Feeling moved, the guardian of the well sighed:
“Once again you have succeeded in proving to me that not all men are alike. You are one of the Good Ones. I only take my revenge on those who are greedy for money. You are not one of them. Thanks to you, the well will return to how it was before. Its water will once again be drinkable, and life will resume its normal course in your village. I have finally forgiven you, human beings. I have understood that you are not all the same and there exist good ones among you. I am leaving. I am returning to heaven.”
And thus, the guardian of the well flew off to the afterlife and the village went back to living its normal life …
The Mysterious Well
This book was awarded the “Prix Saint-Exupery – Valeurs Jeunesse,” a prize rewarding books for young people which extol the humanist values exemplified by the author of “The Little Prince” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: tolerance, friendship, self-improvement, the courage to overcome life’s obstacles and wisdom, in the Francophone category of the prize’s 27th Edition in France in 2015. The final selection is made by a jury of three children who read the shortlisted books and choose their favourite.
The final selection is made by a jury of three children who read the shortlisted books and choose their favourite.